Civil Servants' Constitutional Role - Summary

This is a summary of the constitutional and ethical framework within which UK civil servants work. It will provide sufficient information for many readers, but please follow these links if you would like to read more detailed discussions of civil servants' constitutional role and accountability.

The Traditional Whitehall and Westminster Model

The UK's (partly unwritten) constitution attributes power to Parliament, to the Executive, and to the Courts.  The relative power of each body varies with the subject matter. 

Citizens' fundamental rights and legal duties do not necessarily derive from Parliamentary enactments.  And the 2019 Miller (prorogation) Supreme Court judgment showed that there can be rare occasions when Parliament is constitutionally so weak that it requires the protection of the courts.  Much more frequently, the courts are asked to carry out judicial reviews of the executive's decisions.  And Human Rights legislation permits the courts to quash secondary legislation.

Government in the United Kingdom (the UK) is nevertheless built on the assumption that Parliamentary is ultimately sovereign.  All key policy decisions are made by Parliamentarians (through legislation) and there is no higher authority. Legitimacy and democracy are maintained because Ministers are answerable to Parliament, and the House of Commons is elected by the people. Decisions are taken by Ministers (and if necessary by the whole Cabinet) and implemented by a neutral civil service. Put shortly, therefore, there is a simple chain of command. Civil servants are accountable to Ministers who are accountable to Parliament, whose Members are accountable to their constituents.

However, as politicians are inevitably subject to short term and selfish pressures, there needs to be a unified administration in which officials ensure the common good or public interest. To do this, they must be politically neutral and must demonstrate pecuniary and moral integrity. They must not be motivated by the desire to make money.

The UK civil service also conforms pretty well to Max Weber's 'rational-legal' model of bureaucracy, with consequential benefits and disbenefits.  Further detail is in the Annex below.

The 1854 Northcote Trevelyan Report led to the creation of a civil service

with the following core values:

The 1918 Haldane Report recommended the development of deeper partnerships between Ministers and officials so as to meet the more complicated requirements of busier government as substantial executive ministries emerged from the first world war. The relationship between civil servants and Ministers became one of mutual interdependence, with Ministers providing authority and officials providing expertise.

Crucially, therefore, the UK Civil Service has no "constitutional personality" or responsibility separate from the Government of the day. It is there to provide the Government of the day with advice on the formulation of the policies, to assist in carrying out the Government's decisions, and to manage and deliver Government services. Civil servants therefore ... :

The Civil Service Code 2010 provides a clear, helpful and commendably brief summary of the values that should be common to all civil servants of all grades, and the standards of behaviour that are expected of them. The code defines the civil servants' four core values in the following way:

The Civil Service Commission's Recruitment Principles contain the latest interpretation of the basic principles that civil servants should be appointed on merit and through open competition.

The Armstrong Memorandum summarises the duties and responsibilities of civil servants. The most important parts read as follows:

Civil servants who appear before Select Committees are required to follow the 'Osmotherly Rules'. Put shortly, officials may describe and explain the reasons which caused Ministers to adopt existing policies but they should not give information which undermines collective responsibility nor get into a discussion about alternative policies. In particular, they are not allowed to divulge:

The Carltona Principle is the legal principle under which civil servants exercise power on behalf of Ministers.    Secretaries of State (etc.) are responsible for the way in which their decisions are exercised by their officials, but they are not required to have attended personally to every one of them.  This delegation of peer is justified because

Note, however, that this principle was eroded somewhat by the 2020 decision that the imprisonment of former leader of Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams, had been unlawful because it had been approved by a junior Minister instead of by the Secretary of State in person.  The longer term consequences of this decision remain to be seen.

Accountability means being held to account, scrutinised, and being required to give an account or explanation. If it is effective, accountability causes the decision maker to think hard about the range of decisions that are available to him/her, and the fairness, appropriateness and proportionality of each possible decision. Jonathan Haidt refers to this as exploratory thought, and argues (I think correctly) that effective accountability has three vital elements:

(Apart from their relationship with Ministers), civil servants are in principle accountable upwards through audit and Parliamentary scrutiny, and outwards through transparency and openness to stakeholders and to the public at large, and also through Judicial Review (JR). But only JR meets all three of the tests of effective accountability summarised above.

Civil servants are accountable for three things:-

  1. Our stewardship of public funds etc. including:
    • regularity which means the requirement for all expenditure and receipts to be dealt with in accordance with the legislation authorising them, any delegated authority and the rules of Government accounting
    • propriety which is a further requirement that expenditure and receipts should be dealt with in accordance with Parliament's intentions and the principles of Parliamentary control, and in accordance with the values and behaviour appropriate to the public sector - see below.
    • value for money (VFM), and
    • effective management systems.
  2. Compliance
    • with the law
    • with Government policies and initiatives, and
    • with public expectations of proper conduct:- see "the Seven Principles" listed below.
  3. Our Performance, including
    • against objectives and targets, and
    • in delivering acceptable levels of service to the public.

More detail, if you need it, is here.

The Seven Principles of Public Life were endorsed in the Nolan Report as encapsulating the values and behaviour appropriate to the public sector: A short summary is as follows:

  1. Don't bend or break the rules
  2. Put in place and follow clear procedures
  3. If approval is needed, get it first
  4. Don't allow a conflict of interest to appear to affect a decision
  5. Don't use public money for private benefit
  6. Be even-handed .  Record the reasons for decisions .

Lady Hale's 2017 speech The UK Constitution on the Move includes a very nice summary of the UK constitution, although she doesn't touch on the role of the Civil Service.

Comment: Various parts of the above model are being increasingly tested by modern developments. See the notes on civil service reform for a detailed discussion.

Annex - Max Weber's Bureaucratic Model

Max Weber's bureaucratic theory or model is sometimes also known as the rational-legal model. It is based on the general principle of precisely defined and organized across-the-board competencies of the various offices. These competencies are underpinned by rules, laws, and/or administrative regulations. For Weber, this means

  1. A rigid division of labor is established that clearly identifies regular tasks and duties of the particular bureaucratic system.
  2. Regulations describe firmly established chains of command and the duties and capacity to coerce others to comply.
  3. Hiring people with particular, certified qualifications supports regular and continuous execution of the assigned duties.

Weber notes that these three aspects "...constitute the essence of bureaucratic administration ... in the public sector. In the private sector, these three aspects constitute the essence of a bureaucratic management of a private company."

The model goes on to identify nine principles or characteristics of the bureaucratic model.

  1. Specialized roles
  2. Recruitment based on merit (e.g., tested through open competition)
  3. Uniform principles of placement, promotion, and transfer in an administrative system
  4. Careerism with systematic salary structure
  5. Hierarchy, responsibility and accountability
  6. Subjection of official conduct to strict rules of discipline and control
  7. Supremacy of abstract rules
  8. Impersonal authority (e.g., office bearer does not bring the office with him)
  9. Political neutrality


Weber recognised that real bureaucracy is less optimal and effective than his ideal model. Each of Weber's principles can degenerate. However, when implemented in a group setting in an organization, real efficiency and effectiveness can be achieved, especially with regard to better output. This is especially true if the implementation successfully focuses on qualifications (merits), specialization of roles, hierarchy of power, rules and discipline.


Weber recognised that individual bureaucrats can wield power, but the job normally imposes constraints.  According to Weber, the bureaucrat "is only a small cog in a ceaselessly moving mechanism which prescribes to him an essentially fixed route of march.  The official is entrusted with specialized tasks, and normally the mechanism cannot be put in motion or arrested by him, but only from the very top".

Martin Stanley

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